In the 3rd episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini & Stephen Lyman introduce you to the mysterious world of awamori, shochu’s older cousin from Okinawa. This ancient spirit predates shochu and is made even more interesting with its unique production methods and unusual aging technique. Today 47 distilleries scattered over the Okinawan archipelago continue to make this resolutely traditional drink.
Okinawa is an archipelago of 160 islands scattered across thousands of square nautical miles of ocean. 49 are inhabited and 9 of them have active distilleries where this rice distillate is made. Yonaguni, the furthest island from mainland Japan, makes hanazake, which is 60% alcohol firewater, and which until very recently could not be called awamori due to the high proof.
Mixing and Editing: Rich Pav (https://www.uncannyjapan.com/)
CHRISTOPHER PELLEGRINI Vermont born and bred, long-time Tokyo resident and author of The Shochu Handbook, Christopher learned about delicious fermentations as a brewer at Otter Creek (Middlebury, VT). He now spends most of his waking hours convincing strangers that shochu and awamori are unlike anything they’ve ever tried before.
STEPHEN LYMAN discovered Japan’s indigenous spirits at an izakaya in New York City. He was so enthralled that he now lives in Japan and works in a tiny craft shochu distillery every autumn. His first book, The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, was nominated for a 2020 James Beard Award.
They have been to Okinawa many times, but never together. This needs to change once safe travel is again a possibility. Christopher drinks awamori like a Satsuma samurai. Stephen drinks his like a proper Okinawan fisherman.
If you have any comments or questions about this episode of Japan Distilled, please reach out to Stephen or Christopher via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
As Stephen mentioned, the Ryukyu Kingdom was a vital up in Asian trade routes, providing the only direct trade between China and Japan due to diplomatic concerns between those two powers.
Due to Ryukyu royal decree, all legally produced awamori was made within sight of the Shuri Castle walls. Unfortunately, Shuri Castle and the surrounding town were completely leveled in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. The distilleries were completely destroyed including warehouses of awamori dating back more than 200 years.
After the war, the occupying US military granted 79 awamori distilling licenses. Just 11 of these distilleries could trace back to prewar businesses.
Shitsugi is a fractional blending technique in which awamori is always served out of the oldest pot of spiri available, which is then refilled with spirit from the 2nd old post, back on down the line until the new make spirit is put into a pot. This aging method results in deep, rich flavors for the end user. Awamori aged more than 3 years can legally be called “kusu” or old awamori while awamori aged more than 10 or 20 years can cost a small fortune for an unopened ceramic vessel or bottle.
Today 47 active distilleries on 9 islands make Ryukyu Awamori, a geographical indication protected by the World Trade Organization just like Scotch Whisky or Champagne. The Chuko Distillery on the outskirts of Naha City has revived a traditional Okinawan pottery design and now makes their own ceramics on the distillery grounds.
Today, awamori is most commonly consumed mixed with ice and cold water (mizuwari in Japanese). However, traditionally it was consumed straight in these small chibugwa ceramic cups poured from a kara-kara, which contains a small ceramic pebble inside to make noise when the vessel is empty.